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If there’s one step you shouldn’t skip in your skincare routine, it’s exfoliating. “By removing the outermost layer of dead skin cells, you can unclog pores, which, in turn, can improve and prevent acne,” explains Dr. Peterson Pierre, a board-certified dermatologist. “Exfoliation can make your skin softer and smoother while evening out your skin tone.”
But if you have sensitive skin, you know that exfoliation can come with some pretty irritating side effects—namely redness, itchiness, and tightness. The good news? You can totally exfoliate sensitive skin if you use the right product. According to Dr. Pierre, you’re better off with a chemical one over a physical one. “The latter involves mechanical friction which can really irritate the skin and lead to redness,” he says. “Chemical exfoliation breaks the bonds between the cells, which makes that dead skin layer easier to wash away.”
Whichever exfoliator you choose, Dr. Pierre recommends starting off by exfoliating no more than once a week. “After several weeks, if your skin is tolerating it well, you can gradually progress to two or three times a week,” he says. And of course, make sure to follow up with your favorite face cream.
Ready to enjoy a clearer, smoother complexion sans irritation? Below, we’ve rounded up the best exfoliators for sensitive skin.
Best Overall: Farmacy Honeymoon Glow AHA Resurfacing Night Serum
This exfoliating night serum is a dream for sensitive skin. It’s formulated with a blend of gentle alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), and flower acids to get rid of dead skin cells and minimize dark spots without causing any irritation. It’s also chock-full of hydrating and soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and honey. Byrdie commerce editor Avery Stone can attest—she loves how healthy, youthful, and clear her skin looks after using this serum, as well as how quickly it absorbs into her skin.
What Our Testers Say
"A few days after I began using the serum I noticed that my skin began to feel smoother and softer." — Olivia Hancock, Product Tester
Best Budget: The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA
Dr. Pierre is a fan of this budget-friendly exfoliator for sensitive skin. “It contains lactic acid and hyaluronic acid, a good combination to minimize redness and irritation,” he says. The gentle formula targets uneven tone, clogged pores, and irregular texture. With regular use, you can expect to see brighter, smoother skin.
What Our Testers Say
"The day after using it, my skin always feels super smooth and soft." — Joline Buscemi, Product Tester
Best Drugstore: e.l.f. Cosmetics Gentle Peeling Exfoliant
You don’t have to shell out major money to find an effective yet gentle exfoliator for sensitive skin—simply head to the drugstore and pick up this version for a glowier complexion. Papaya extract does a great job of sloughing off dead skin cells without being harsh on sensitive skin while licorice extract gently brightens.
Best Splurge: SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight
Sometimes, a skincare product is worth the splurge, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to this SkinCeuticals exfoliator. “It combines glycolic acid with phytic acid, natural oils, and botanicals to soothe and hydrate the skin,” notes Dr. Pierre. Plus, it’s free of alcohol, fragrance, and dye, all ingredients that can irritate sensitive skin.
Best for Dry Skin: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads
Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that works to exfoliate the skin. Its molecule is slightly larger than glycolic acid, meaning it works a bit slower and doesn't penetrate the skin's outermost layer as easily.
One of the most convenient ways to exfoliate is using a peel pad—and these just so happen to be ideal for dry, sensitive skin. They contain glycolic and lactic acids to exfoliate away dead skin cells and help even out tone. Some reviewers say that there's enough liquid in one pad for two uses, so you may be able to cut the pads in half and get more for your money.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
Alpha-hydroxy acids are a group of acid compounds, most often derived from plant-based sources, which work to exfoliate the skin. They come in a variety of types (like glycolic and lactic acid) and differ in size, and subsequently, penetration and potency.
Taking care of sensitive, acne-prone skin can be tricky. Enter this lightweight exfoliating serum. A combo of AHAs (glycolic, tartaric, lactic, and citric) slough off dead skin cells, while salicylic acid (BHA) unclogs pores, and raspberry fruit extract protects skin against free radicals and soothes irritation.
Best for Hyperpigmentation: Marla Rene Beauty & Co. Pomegranate and Papaya Hydro Derma Exfoliating Mask
Regularly exfoliating can help reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation, and this exfoliating face mask is a solid option for anyone with sensitive skin who’s looking to fade dark spots. Papaya extract gently gets rid of dead skin cells so younger and more radiant skin can come to the surface. On top of that, vitamin C provides antioxidant protection against hyperpigmentation-causing free radicals so you can prevent new dark spots from forming.
Best for Beginners: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Lotion Exfoliant
New to the whole exfoliating game? Try this easy-to-use chemical exfoliator, which is perfect for beginners (and for sensitive skin). Its formula contains 8% glycolic acid, which is then combined with super-soothing and hydrating plant extracts and oils. That means you get all of the skin-clearing and brightening benefits of an exfoliator with none of the irritation that can come from harsh formulas. Simply smooth a dime-size amount onto your face after cleansing.
Best Exfoliating Pads: Neogen Dermalogy Real Cica Pad
It’s time to say goodbye to unnecessary irritation caused by harsh exfoliation. These peel pads are formulated with a slew of gentle acids to get rid of dead skin cells, as well as “cica” technology to calm sensitive skin. Cica stands for centella asiatica, a medicinal herb used to help improve skin barrier function and keep irritants out, Users note how smooth their skin feels after use, adding that the pads help them maintain clear skin without causing any redness.
Best Scrub: Renée Rouleau Mint Buffing Beads
While scrubs are typically not recommended for sensitive skin, this is the one exception. A favorite of Byrdie associate editor Holly Rhue, this scrub uses natural jojoba beads, which are round and non-abrasive, to manually get rid of dead skin cells and reveal healthier, smoother skin.
If you're going to use a physical scrub, Dr. Pierre recommends that you opt for one with jojoba beads (like this one) because they're rounded and non-abrasive, which minimizes the chances of irritation. Also, try to avoid microbeads because of their sharp edges.
What to Look For in an Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin
If you have sensitive skin, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Brian Hibler recommends reaching for alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, for gentle chemical exfoliation. “Start with an AHA such as glycolic, lactic, or mandelic acid at a low concentration, once a week,” he says. “If your skin is able to tolerate it, you may increase to two or three times a week. There’s no need to rush to a high concentration; it’s more important to be consistent with use and go slowly to avoid creating excess irritation.” That said, he also recommends spot-testing any new product in an inconspicuous location and waiting a full 24 hours before applying it to the whole face.
Of all the AHAs available, he says that lactic acid is one of the most gentle; it has a softening and moisturizing effect and can be used on a more regular basis, even by those with sensitive skin. He also recommends that sensitive skin types be careful when using beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs, like salicylic acid. “Although beneficial for acne, salicylic acid may be too harsh for sensitive skin—it should be introduced at a very low concentration.”
Another acid (that doesn’t fall into the AHA or BHA category) Dr. Hibler recommends is azelaic acid, an antioxidant-rich ingredient he says helps unclog pores, brighten the skin, and help with inflammatory conditions like acne and rosacea.
Exfoliation can dry out the skin, so Dr. Hibler suggests reaching for combination products that also contain hydrating ingredients like plant oils or hyaluronic acid. This, he says, will prevent the skin from drying out, leaving the complexion soft and smooth.
Free of Potential Irritants
Lastly, Dr. Hibler recommends using products that are free of common irritants like artificial fragrances, dyes, alcohol, and preservatives. While many of these ingredients won’t aggravate most skin types, it’s not worth chancing a potential bad reaction if your skin is on the sensitive side.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Brian Hibler is a board-certified and Harvard-fellowship trained medical and cosmetic dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.